The first rifts in Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new coalition emerged today — just days after he brought the main opposition party into his government.
Mr Netanyahu and Kadima party leader Shaul Mofaz had pledged to do away with the current system of automatic draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox Jewish men.
The country’s Supreme Court has ordered the government to end the system by August 1 but two members of the new coalition clashed over the pledge.
Ultra-Orthodox MP Moshe Gafni warned of a possible “cultural civil war” if the exemptions are lifted while far-right Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who heads a secular party, said that there could be no “foot dragging” on the matter.
Mr Netanyahu announced a new partnership with the opposition Kadima party on Monday night just as the nation was expecting him to call early elections.
“A broad national unity government is good for security, good for the economy, good for the people of Israel,” he declared at a news conference with Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz, his new deputy prime minister.
Mr Netanyahu now heads a 94-member coalition which is one of the broadest alliances in the 120-seat parliament in Israeli history.
He and Mr Mofaz pledged an unspecified reform of the political system, to protect the economy
Kadima had resisted joining the government when former foreign minister Tzipi Livni was at the party’s helm, because she did not think Mr Netanyahu was serious about reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians. But Mr Mofaz
ousted Ms Livni in Kadima’s leadership vote last month.
Peace talks with the Palestinians have been frozen throughout Mr Netanyahu’s three-year term due to disagreements over Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem.
He vowed to pursue a “responsible peace process” and said: “We are prepared to engage them at any time, any place.”
But the Palestinians have dismissed Mr Netanyahu’s comments as rhetoric and remain deeply sceptical.
Meanwhile senior Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat was taken to hospital yesterday after suffering a serious heart attack.
Dr Ahmed Bitwai, head of Ramallah hospital in the West Bank, confirmed yesterday that Mr Erekat had a “sharp” attack early yesterday and was taken to the hospital for a heart catheterisation.
Mr Erekat has been a leading negotiator with Israel in talks over Palestinian independence during the past two decades.
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